Up the creek
Richard Croasdale finally hurls himself off a rock
Saturday 05 June 2021
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Apparently, misreading “canyoning” as “canoeing” is a pretty common mistake, particularly for time-strapped beer writers. I may also have been tipsy when I read the email; who can say? In any case, we are where we are, and where we are is the Scottish Highlands, just outside of Pitlochry, with flipflops, sunnies and misplaced expectations of a relaxing day paddling serenely down the river Tummel.
Canyoning, for the ignorant (me), is a popular adventure activity, involving descending through a natural canyon by whatever means possible – generally going for the most efficient. In practice, this means a combination of scrambling, sliding, swimming, abseiling and, most infamously, jumping off high rocks into deep water. I generally consider myself to be quite adventurous, but I’d be the first to admit that heights are not my strength.
I’ve come here straight from hanging out with 71 Brewing in Dundee, where I at least had the sense to turn down the proffered samples. Whether a sly pre-emptive beer would have made the day easier or harder is moot; the guys organising this adventure, Nae Limits, are quite rightly sticklers for safety, so this would have ended in me being sent home with my tail between my legs.
In the same spirit, my fellow canyoners and I – I’m joined by a group of young plumbers from Edinburgh – are fully kitted out in skin-tight neoprene long-johns, jackets and socks, as well as helmets and climbing harnesses. It’s only the second day of the spring season, so we’re warned the weather and the water are going to be chilly.
Chilly or not, the walk up to the top of the Falls of Bruar is spectacular. This narrow natural canyon has been carved out of the blue-white rock, which emerges from its walls and from beneath the water in long curving plates, eroded by millions of years of rain and snowmelt from the surrounding hills. This slow action has created a spectacular series of stepped falls, and the constant flow of water has hollowed out deep, clear pools where it crashes down.
Once at the top (or, at least, the top of the middle – one can start further up for an extra challenge) our patient instructor Guy walks us through some techniques and safety tips, mostly focused on making sure fragile limbs are tucked out of the way. Properly briefed, we’re ready to go on the first jump of the day, which will see us step off a sheer ledge and into a pool about 1.5 meters below. I feel we’re being eased in.
Even with the thick wetsuit pieces, the cold shock of the water is bracing, tightening the chest and forcing a gasping inhalation. There’s also a thrilling rush of adrenaline, and the instinctive panic is joined by a stupid grin that hits my face before I’ve even surfaced. I yelp and laugh with delight, and crawl my way to a bank of low rocks where some of the others are already waiting.
We compare notes, and agree it’ll be our hands that bear the brunt of the cold – the only properly exposed parts of our bodies in the water. Trying to adjust my chin strap, I can already feel I’m losing sensation, and fumble clumsily at the clip until Guy helps me.
The next obstacle is a high waterfall, bordered on one side by a sheer rock face that rises a couple of meters above us, before dropping down into the section below, forming a natural overhang. Ominously, there is a bright yellow rope strung horizontally along this high wall, anchored at several points and ending directly about the base of the fall. I feel we’re about to find out what the carabiners attached to our harnesses are for.
Following Guy’s carefully repeated instructions, we make our way one-by-one along the length of the rope, carabiners clipped on and feet flat against the wall, until we reach the far end. Then in turn we each sit, unclip, and take the stomach-turning slide into the waiting water. This time, I’m under for long enough to open my eyes, tuck myself over and kick down against the powerful buoyancy of the wetsuit. The water is as crystal clear as it looks from the surface, and an underwater landscape of smooth, pristine rocks is revealed. For someone more used to swimming in the copper-hued, peaty waters of lochs, I’m blown away by the beauty of this hidden scene, but am quickly enough snatched back up to surface.
Compared to Guy, Cam and our photographer Charlotte, we’re all making heavy work of moving across the slippery terrain in and around the river, our arms outstretched and constantly stumbling. By contrast, our guides seem to skip over rocks and move between land and water with the grace of a different species, evolved to do just this. I feel particularly ungainly out of the water – like a binbag of sausage meat being dragged down a hill – so choose to endure the chilly depths wherever that’s an option.
As an experience for beginners, the route we’ve been given couldn’t be more perfect. Every obstacle gives us a fresh challenge and introduces us to a different skill, from abseiling to swimming through a submerged arch, and progressing from small jumps to more knee-shaking leaps of faith.
The final jump of the day is a full five meter drop from a narrow grassy perch into a particularly deep and dark pool. It’s the first time I’ve felt my old friend vertigo properly kick in, and that familiar giddy, weightless feeling hits my brain and my arse simultaneously, sending me reeling and grasping at a nearby tree branch. It takes some gentle encouragement from Guy (and the poorly concealed judgement of eight plumbers) but I eventually manage to command my legs to take the fatal step.
Despite having long been filed in the ‘not my cup of tea’ box (somewhere between Morris dancing and cannibalism) canyoning was one of the most exciting activities I’ve tried in ages. So if you’re looking for a way to convince yourself that you’re still alive after an endless year of lockdown, I honestly can’t recommend hurling yourself off a rock more highly. Just leave your flipflops at home.
Huge thanks to everyone at Nae Limits for their generous help with this feature. Based just outside the town of Pitlochry, a mere 90 minutes north of Edinburgh, Nae Limits offers a wide range of water and land-based activities, from tubing and white water rafting to quad biking and clay pigeon shooting. Whether it's a hen do, a team-building trip or a solo adventure, they're fantastic at putting together a day that's just right for you.
Photography for this feature was provided by The Adventure Photographers, a brilliant Scottish company whose work ranges from tame day trips like this, to full-blown expeditions in some of the world's most adventurous and challenging environments. What's more, it invests 100% of its profits into environmental conservation. Check out more of its amazing work at www.theadventurephotographers.com
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